The captain of an alleged pirate ship accused of fishing illegally in Antarctic waters clapped and cheered as his vessel sank off the West African coast overnight, an indication that the ship had been deliberately scuttled, according to Sea Shepherd activists.
In what was described as a “weird and surreal” experience, Sea Shepherd crew members have now rescued 40 people from the alleged poaching vessel, the Thunder, which the conservation group had been pursuing for nearly four months from the Southern to the Indian and Atlantic oceans.
Captain Peter Hammarstedt, the director of ship operations for Sea Shepherd Australia, told Fairfax Media from the deck of the Bob Barker, a Sea Shepherd vessel, that the Nigerian-flagged Thunder was now “3800 metres below the surface of the sea”.
Crew members from the Thunder had been towed on life rafts to the Bob Barker’s sister ship, Sam Simon, where they were being given food, water and medical attention before being taken to Sao Tome, in the Gulf of Guinea, where the crew would be handed over to local law enforcement authorities
“What was incredibly strange was that the captain of the Thunder, when the vessel did actually sink, started applauding and cheering, which I took to be very unusual behaviour and further evidence that he deliberately sank his own vessel,” Captain Hammarstedt said.
“We had a small boat crew that was with the life raft at the time. They were towing the life raft to the Sam Simon so that the crew could be recovered, and they witnessed the captain of the Thunder in a very jovial mood once the Thunder actually went down completely.”
The Thunder, which has used a series of names and different national flags, is said by Interpol to have illegally reaped tens of millions of dollars worth of prized “white gold” toothfish, and Sea Shepherd Australia vessels have been pursuing it since December.
Sea Shepherd boats have recovered gillnets up to 25 kilometres long, which are banned in the Antarctic, and which were allegedly abandoned by the Thunder. The Sea Shepherd had made numerous reports to transnational authorities claiming the Thunder had repeatedly tried to ram the Bob Barker and hurled grappling hooks and other metal projectiles at the vessel during the long pursuit.
The Thunder issued a distress signal about 4:00pm (AEST) on Monday, and Sea Shepherd vessels that had been pursuing the vessel were then obliged to take the crew on board.
Captain Hammarstedt said the response from Thunder crew members to being rescued varied. He said the Indonesian crew members, who he said were employed as fishermen on board the vessel to do the “dirty and dangerous” work, were relieved to have been rescued.
“The deck officers, who are primarily Spanish, were not as happy. I think that we probably weren’t their preferred rescuer but sometimes you don’t get to decide who rescues you,” Captain Hammarstedt said.
He said the Thunder’s captain, who was a Chilean national, was “a bit difficult to deal with, complaining a lot”.
“I’d never imagine someone complaining as much about being rescued as this guy,” Captain Hammarstedt said.
“It was a very unusual situation. Certainly the crew on board that vessel have been very violent and aggressive towards my crew and my ship for the past almost four months, so it was a weird, surreal experience having to take them on board one of our ships, but it is our legal and moral obligation to do so.”
Captain Hammarstedt said he believed the ship had been deliberately scuttled to destroy any evidence of illegal fishing.
“We’ve been chasing the Thunder for 110 days now, and I think they’re basically at the end of their fuel, and they would have had to make a port call. I think the captain of the Thunder made the decision that he preferred the physical evidence on board … was better on the ocean bottom than going into port with him,” he said.
Captain Hammarstedt said the crew members were all searched for weapons as they boarded the Sam Simon, and had been segregated from Sea Shepherd staff as the vessel made its way towards Sao Tome, a journey that was expected to take four to five hours.
-taken from WAToday
-photos: Sea Shepherd